There are actually many National Parks and protected zones in Nepal, but Chitwan is a huge tourist draw and, as a result, the neighbouring village Sauraha is full of guest houses, restaurants, cyber cafes and money changer shops and, if you wanted, you could just turn up to Kantipath in Kathmandu at 6am, ask any one of the buses going to Chitwan if they have seats and just book things as you go. There is plenty of information about doing that on this great blog, although the prices might be a little out of date.
Me, I just wanted to get there so I went for the easier (although not necessarily better!) option of booking a package deal through my hostel in Kathmandu, and if you fancy doing the same, any travel agent or hotel in Kathmandu can sort it out for you.
I had 3 days/ 2 nights at Chitwan. Someone picked me up from my Hotel in Kathmandu and walked me to the bus stop. After about 15 minutes, there were still only 3 people on our bus so it was on again with my embarrassingly large backpack and on what seemed like an eternal walk to another bus. The bus ride itself was worth it; as we got further out of Kathmandu, I had a real eye-opener into how a lot of people live in Nepal. There were tents made of scarves on scraps of ground, tiny houses with corrugated iron rooves squeezed into the hills and mostly people working, working really, really hard. People carrying loads their own size in baskets on their backs, sewing mattresses by the road,children helping with farmwork or playing in the dust outside their parents’ shops. So many roadside shops selling crisps, chocolate and drinks — how do they all make money, cheek by jowl like that? It started to seem like there are two kinds of people in Nepal — those working in the tourist industry, and those eking out a living in poverty. Of course, that can’t be completely true because I’ve seen plenty of Nepalese tourists here too.
A very bumpy (ladies, if you ever get a bus in Nepal, wear a sports bra!) six odd hours later, we pulled into Sauraha bus park. We were seemingly in the middle of nowhere; as far as I could see were fields of yellow and green, hay stacks shaped like houses, little houses with chickens pecking outside. I could hear birdsong; it would have been peaceful it wasn’t for the taxi touts; none of whom were from the hotel I was staying at of course! Luckily a girl showed up who was staying at the same hotel, and she had the guts to ask someone to call our hotel! We were picked up by a windowless bus and taken to ‘unique wildlife resort’ where we were given a glass of some cold, neon orange substance and talked through our programme.
That evening our guide (Deepa? That’s how his name was pronounced, anyway!) took us on a walk through the park and to a riverside bar where we enjoyed a sunset; we being the guide, two Frenchmen (Gerome and Niko), the Chinese girl (to my eternal shame I’ve forgotten her name already, I think it was Lei Lei) and me.
As I sat watching the sunset, laughing at Lei Lei’s banter with Gerome, I felt like I was in paradise. I know there is beauty in Britain, but here was beauty that I might never see again, and I was lucky enough to be able to share it with other people, however briefly.
The high point for me was the second day, our only full day. It was just a series of high points actually, with one moment of unease: the elephant back safari.
I’m about to majorly digress here, so if you want to skip the amateur ethics thesis, go right ahead. The ‘right’ way to react to a foreign culture is something that has popped into my mind again and again this last week, and I think one of the most divisive cultural differences is our attitudes to animals. We stepped from a platform onto a box on the back of this beautiful creature and she took us around the forest; including her driver or Mahout, she was carrying five people. The Mahout, Deepak guides her mostly with calls or by pressing his bare feet behind her ears, but when she was ‘naughty’ as Deepak termed it, which happened twice in our 90 minute trek, he took a piece of iron and hit her with that. I felt a bit sick at that but, unlike Lei Lei, I didn’t protest ‘Don’t hit her!’ mainly because I knew he would anyway. Now before you come high and mighty, let me put some things to you: firstly, it was obvious from talking to Deepak that he scorned people who hit animals gratuitously. To paraphrase, he also made it clear he had a deep respect for his elephant ‘I love her…I don’t like hitting her. I like it when she is good.’ secondly, and for me more importantly, it is because of these elephants’ value in the tourist industry that they are deemed worthy of protection from poachers. This is a country where poverty is rife and it can’t be easy to get people to see the long-term benefits of conservation. And yet. My overriding feeling is that if an animal needs to be hit in order to take four people on a safari, maybe we shouldn’t be making her take us on a safari. I refuse to get judgemental about Deepak because, who am I to? But we need a way to make wildlife valuable in the developing world without any animals or humans being coerced.
There, rant over!
During the elephant walk we saw spotted deer, sambar(?) deer, wild boar, and lots of birds. In the afternoon, we took a canoe safari in a dugout canoe, named so because they are hollowed out of a single log of wood. The river as the sun slipped down was beautiful enough to make me forget how uncomfortable the little wooden seats were but, as if to really spoil us, we saw dozens of crocodiles basking in the sunlight and birds, too; egrets, storks, kingfishers and others I never learned the name of. I tried to take pictures to impress Dad and maybe give him the satisfaction of looking them up in some book, but they came out pretty blurry 😐
After getting off the canoe, we took a walking safari. The disadvantage of a walking safari is that if you see a rhino or tiger, you’re more likely to get mauled by it. The advantage is — well, walking in the forest is just nice, isn’t it? The smell of the earth, the way the light filters through the trees and the roots creeping under the surface of the ground like bones. Bliss. We were lucky enough to see two rhinos; splendid, mighty creatures, with small twiddly ears that like they came from the joke shop. We nearly saw a tiger apparently, we could hear something roaring in the background anyway, but it could’ve been an elephant or a dog — it sounded like both! You’d have to be very, very lucky to see a tiger in Chitwan, they are scared of humans and elephants and usually stay deep in the forest.
Really, the only bad thing about Chitwan was that its peace and beauty made Kathmandu seem less pleasant by comparison when I got back! My main tip would be to go it independently though, or find a package which you can tailor, if you don’t want to be subject to a fixed programme and three rounds of bizarre ‘tourist’ food each day! The Frenchmen in particular found 12.00 lunches and 18.00 dinners a trial 😛
Ps. I’ve had my first day in Delhi now, in case anyone’s wondering, and it’s been lovely so far. Travelling’s more fun with other people, and listening to their stories and watching them barter is giving me tips for later!